WASHINGTON — A congressional committee Thursday approved legislation that would partly remove baseball's antitrust exemption, signaling a growing frustration in Congress with a labor dispute that ended the 1994 season and threatens next year's games.
The exemption, created by a 1922 Supreme Court decision, protects owners of major league baseball clubs from being sued by players under federal antitrust laws. It was a major factor in the players' decision last month to go on strike in an effort to prevent management from imposing a salary cap that would limit their pay.
In a move designed to assist the players, the House Judiciary Committee voted to scrap elements of the antitrust exemption if club owners unilaterally impose the salary cap or other work rules opposed by the players' union.
The voice vote on a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Synar (D--Okla.) marked the first time that a congressional committee has acted against the exemption. It would allow players to challenge in federal court as an unfair "restraint on trade" any salary cap or work rules that owners might seek to impose, leaving the decision in the hands of a federal judge.
In a related matter, Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser joined other major league players Thursday in urging another congressional committee to impose binding arbitration in the baseball strike if that is needed to salvage spring training and next year's season.
Hershiser, New York Yankee center fielder Bernie Williams and Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop Jay Bell were heard during a House Education and Labor subcommittee hearing on a bill sponsored by subcommittee chairman Pat Williams (D-Mont.) to impose binding arbitration "to preserve the 1995 season if the parties fail to reach agreement on their own by Feb. 1, 1995."
The prospects are uncertain for final action by Congress on the antitrust exemption or on the matter of binding arbitration because lawmakers hope to adjourn within the next 10 days.
"I think we want to put this league and the players on notice that the antitrust exemption they enjoyed is on its deathbed," Synar said. "It's a very narrow, straightforward approach to give players their day in court so we can end this strike."
The anger of members of Congress over the baseball strike that began Aug. 12, wiping out the rest of the season and the World Series, was apparent at the hearing before the labor-management relations subcommittee of the Education and Labor Committee.
Chairman Williams, wearing a Yankee cap at times, said that he and other fans "are angry, sad and disappointed." He demanded to know what bargaining sessions are taking place. When told that none had occurred in the last two weeks and none are scheduled, the congressman thundered, "That ain't going to get it!"
Williams said that he is determined to push his bill for binding arbitration through his committee in hopes of getting action by the House and Senate by the end of next week.
Under the legislation, an arbitration board would be established to choose between one final offer from each side, with a decision by March 15.
Endorsing such an approach, Hershiser told the subcommittee, "We need your help. We appreciate any efforts you are making to get involved. We feel collective bargaining is the way to go. But the rules we are playing under are not working."
Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.), a subcommittee member, told players and owner representatives sitting at the witness table, "I urge you to resolve your differences without congressional intervention. But I assure you we will get involved to protect the interest of fans and the best interests of baseball."
Richard Ravitch, management's chief negotiator, said that congressional action of any kind "is not the appropriate mechanism" for resolving the dispute.
"The serious economic problems faced by major league baseball can only be resolved through a free collective bargaining process," Ravitch said. He attacked the players' union for what he termed "its philosophical refusal to negotiate labor costs as contemplated by the federal labor laws."
Some committee members, too, appeared reluctant to approve binding arbitration. Rep. Harris W. Fawell (R-Ill.) said, "I love this game, but the strike is not an economic tragedy and I basically take the view that we ought not to break into the collective bargaining process."
Added California Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), "I'm a big Dodger fan, but I have great concerns when the government gets involved in private enterprise."
After the hearing, Ravitch told reporters that club owners had started thinking about whether to declare an impasse and impose a salary cap.